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Interview with Debut Author Ishta Mercurio

Authors, Debut Interviews, InterviewsLindsay Ward1 Comment

Happy Thursday Critters! Today we have an interview with debut author Ishta Mercurio. I’m thrilled to have her with us today and I can’t wait for you to hear about her wonderful debut picture book, SMALL WORLD, illustrated by Jen Corace, which will release with Abrams Books for Young Readers on July 2nd.

So without further ado…please welcome Ishta Mercurio!

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Where do you live?

I live in Brampton, Ontario! I haven't always lived here, though. I grew up in Cincinnati, OH. I come from a long line of people who moved around.

When did you know you wanted to write picture books?

I've always loved storytelling, and I studied theater in college. There was something about using my whole self--my body, my gestures, my facial expressions, my voice--to tell a character's story that I really loved. But when I had kids, I realized that paying someone to look after them was going to cost more than I was earning! So I decided to stop working for a while and stay home with my littles. I read to them every night at bedtime, and I fell in love with the storytelling in picture books: the rhythm of the language captivated me, and the way the words and pictures came together to make something that is greater than the sum of their parts is an alchemy that I had to be a part of.

Tell us about your road to publication, what did that involve for you?

Reading! I didn't know the first thing about how to get published, so I googled it. This is what's so great about living in the 21st century--you can google how to do almost ANYTHING! So I googled it, and I read a whole bunch of blogs by agents (like Nathan Bransford and Rachelle Gardner) and writers (like Shannon Messenger and Casey McCormick and Shannon O'Donnell and Debbie Ohi), and I joined SCBWI and CANSCAIP (which is like SCBWI, but Canadian), and I invested a lot of time (years!) in learning how the industry works.

I also learned very quickly that my writing was not very good, but I knew that that was okay because you can improve as a writer, so I focused on doing that. I joined critique groups through SCBWI. I took a class in writing for children at the University of Toronto. I became part of the community of kidlit writers in the Toronto area. I went to conferences where I paid for my work to be critiqued, and I kept revising and writing new things until the rejections I got sounded less like one-line form rejections and more like "I loved these things about your story, but this part just isn't working." Meanwhile, a friend from my critique group was writing non-fiction in a series for a publisher, and she asked me if I wanted to write the next non-fiction book in the series with her, so I did, and that was great. It was my first experience working with a publisher, but I was doing it with someone who had worked with them before, and that was really valuable.

And then eventually, an agent pulled my query for a chapter book out of the slush and loved it and asked to see more and loved that, and we met and I knew that I wanted her on my team. She really got me, which is important. You want an agent who really gets you and who absolutely loves your work. And the thing is: that chapter book still hasn't sold, but the next thing she sent out did. And that book is SMALL WORLD. So even after all that, you have to know and accept that rejection is part of the process, throughout your career. And that's okay. Write the next thing.

Can you share a bit about your process?

I usually get an idea that's just a seed, and I write that down--just a sentence or two--and let it marinate for a while. Then I jot down ideas and doodle until I think I have enough to make a story, and then I write out what I call a "bare bones" draft: it's mostly flat, language-wise, with maybe a couple phrases that touch on the lyricism or whatever tone I'm going for, but it has the basic plot. And then I doodle some more, and think about what layers I can build in, and at that point I write one sentence that encompasses the heart of the story, and I tape that to my desk where I can see it while I work through the multiple drafts it takes to get the story right. It's like my compass: it keeps me heading in the right direction.

What do you do to shake the rust off or get new ideas?

I read a lot, and I watch movies. I take walks and garden and watch the bugs do their thing. I catch up on the news. Mostly, though, I go out in the world, to museums or to parks, and I just take it in. And I have conversations with people about things that have nothing to do with writing children's books. Ideas are everywhere; you just have to be open to them.

Anything you can’t live without while you write?

Coffee! But everyone probably says that. I also have a process book, and that's where I write early drafts and doodle and work out niggles in my manuscripts. Even when I reach the type-it-all-out stage, I like to have my process book close by.

Any authors and/or illustrators who inspire you?

Oh, gosh--so many! It would be easier to list the ones who don't, but that would be mean.

I love Marla Frazee's work; her illustrative style is just so gorgeous, and at the same time, so rooted in the messy reality of childhood. She's amazing. I am in awe of Angie Thomas and S. K. Ali, whose books feel so effortless (even though I know they take A LOT of work!). Ekua Holmes' experiments with different illustrative styles and art techniques is blowing me away. Linda Sue Park and Kate DiCamillo both wrote books that made me want to be a better writer. And John Green's books always feel like home.

Dream project to work on?

I have a HUGE bucket list, but one of the things on it is to write a wordless picture book. I know that sounds contradictory, and it's hard to pull it off, but there's no fun without a challenge, right?

Tell us about your debut book.

SMALL WORLD follows Nanda from the day she is born, wrapped in the circle of her mother's arms, right up until the day she goes to the Moon and looks back at the Earth from far away. It's about wonder, and the amazing places your explorations can take you. It's about dreaming big for your future, and finding your place in the vastness of the Universe. It's my love letter to this planet, which is our shared home and which contains innumerable wonders. And it's about joy. Jen Corace illustrated it, and it's a match made in heaven. My editor is a genius for pairing Jen's art with my words.

What’s up next for you?

I'm not allowed to say yet, but I sure hope everyone likes it!

And last, but not least, favorite 80s movie?

The Princess Bride, of course!


Huge thank you to Ishta for stopping by Critter Lit today! We can’t wait for your debut to come out! Congrats!


ISHTA MERCURIO is an author and actor. Raised in Cincinnati by an Irish-German-Italian-American father and a Polish-American-Filipino mother, she has traveled to England, Scotland, Italy, France, and all over the United States. She now lives in Brampton, Ontario, where she films and photographs plants and wildlife, from the tall to the small, in her backyard. Small World is her debut picture book. Find her online at www.ishtamercurio.com, on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/theoneandonlyishta/ , on twitter at @IshtaWrites and on instagram at @ishtamercurio.

TO ORDER Ishta’s book, ring up your local bookstore or click here.

BOOK GIVEAWAY!

Want a chance to win a SIGNED copy of SMALL WORLD?! Comment on this post or share it on Twitter. One lucky winner will be selected Thursday, June 20th! US addresses only please.

Interview with Debut Author Jamie L. B. Deenihan

Authors, Debut Interviews, InterviewsLindsay Ward8 Comments

Happy Thursday Critters! Today we have an interview with debut picture book author Jamie L. B. Deenihan! Her debut book, WHEN GRANDMA GIVES YOU A LEMON TREE, illustrated by Lorraine Rocha, just released with Sterling Publishing earlier this month AND received a starred review from Kirkus!!! So exciting! I’m thrilled to have her visit us today and share her wonderful work with you all.

So without further ado…please welcome Jamie L. B. Deenihan!

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Where do you live?

I live in Suffield, Connecticut very near the family farm I grew up on. I live with my husband, two children, and our dog, Max, in a house filled with books and a growing collection of lemon trees.

When did you know you wanted to write picture books?

Although I’ve always loved to read and write stories, I don’t remember setting goals to become a published author when I was a kid. I do remember wanting to be a veterinarian, until the day I observed a cow’s stomach surgery and quickly decided teaching would be a better fit. I grew up and became a first-grade teacher and a mom who was immersed in picture books for most of the day and I absolutely loved it! It was in those years of teaching full-time and raising two young children that I decided I wanted to publish a book someday. In 2014, my husband and I went to a free library workshop where I received tips about how to become an author. That’s the day I officially set a goal of getting published and I’ve been working at it ever since!

Tell us about your road to publication, what did that involve for you?

Here’s the abbreviated version of my journey to my first picture book deal:

January 2014 – attended a free workshop at my town library and decided I wanted to publish a book someday

March 2015 – wrote the first draft of When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree

*Between March 2015 and February 2016, I was submitting multiple manuscripts to agents and editors and received several rejections.

February 2016 – submitted the manuscript to Sterling Publishing through the slush pile.

Early March 2016 – Sterling Editor, Christina Pulles, asked for a R&R (revise and resubmit)

Late March 2016 – revised and resubmitted to Sterling and while waiting for their response, received more rejections from agents and editors

April 2016 – continued waiting and received more rejections from agents and editors

June 2016 – received an offer from Sterling and signed with my agent, Linda Camacho

March 5, 2019 – release date for my debut picture book, When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree

Can you share a bit about your process for your debut picture book?

In 2015, I started writing down some thoughts for this story in one of my journals. Then, I wrote a terrible first draft (yay!) and started the revision process with my amazing critique partners. Although this manuscript didn’t go through major revisions, it took about 30 drafts to play around with the POV and carefully choose each word. After I had a solid draft complete, I wrote the sentences on post-it notes and used them to create a book dummy to test the page turns. That’s pretty much the same process that I’ve gone through with each of the five manuscripts that I’ve sold so far.

What do you do to shake the rust off or get new ideas?

I have two young children and I work part-time at a preschool, so I am constantly surrounded with inspiration and I love fleshing out new story ideas with my husband and children. My critique partners played a huge role in helping me polish my manuscripts. I am grateful to have critique partners who care about my stories as much as I do, and I look forward to celebrating their books when they hit the shelves.

Anything you can’t live without while you write?

Comfy clothes, a cozy chair, post it notes, mechanical pencils, dark chocolate, tea, and cheese popcorn are a few of the things that make me happy when writing. My favorite time to write is with my kids, but my most productive time to write is very late at night when everyone is asleep, and the house is quiet.

Any authors and/or illustrators who inspire you?

Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple are two of the most hard-working, kind, knowledgeable, and inspiring authors I know. In 2017, I had the privilege of attending their Picture Book Boot Camp at Jane Yolen’s home which has been one of the highlights of my writing career. 

Dream project to work on?

Working on my projects with Sterling, Penguin, and Avenue A Books have all been dreams come true. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with the talented editors at each house as well as the illustrators who brought each manuscript to life. I don’t really have my sights set on a specific publishing house or editor because I believe, with the help of my agent, Linda Camacho, my manuscripts will end up with the right person, at the right place, at the right time.  

Tell us about your debut book.

When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree, was recently honored with a starred review from Kirkus. I think Kirkus did a wonderful job describing my debut picture book, so here it is:

“Gardening tips abound in this delightful guide to caring for a lemon tree. The unnamed protagonist has a carefully drawn-out list of acceptable electronics she wants for her birthday. But Grandma instead brings…gasp…a lemon tree. The second-person text covers appropriate and inappropriate reactions and then advises readers to accept the potted present politely and wait for Grandma to leave or take a nap. Then you definitely shouldn’t: drop it from a bridge, send it aloft with balloons, or ‘play ding dong ditch’ with it (all illustrated with wry understatement). Instead, the narrator offers some incredibly important do’s: put the fruit tree ‘in a sunny spot’ (the grassy verge between sidewalk and street), don’t overwater it, and ‘battle against intruders’ who seem to come from all directions. After nearly a year of caring for her reluctantly received sapling, the protagonist joyously picks her lush lemons, and Grandma even returns to help make some fresh lemonade, the sale of which leads to more plants for her burgeoning garden. Rocha’s colors and characters leap right off the page, encouraging readers to get out into the world and create life, beauty, and some great-tasting lemonade (recipe included). The community is diverse and urban, with no lack of personality and detail. The protagonist and Grandma are both black, she with black pigtail puffs and Grandma with a white poof of hair. Charms from cover to cover.” —Kirkus (Starred review)

What’s up next for you?

As of this June, I am resigning from my part-time preschool teaching position to pursue writing full-time. I would like to have several more manuscripts out on submission by the fall and I’m also looking forward to booking more author’s visits at schools, libraries, bookshops, and other venues. My upcoming picture books include:

The New Bird in Town, illustrated by Carrie Hartman (Avenue A Books June 2019)

The Tooth Fairy VS. Santa, illustrated by Erin Hunting (Penguin Workshop fall 2019) *available for preorder now!

The Tooth Fairy VS. The Easter Bunny, illustrated by Erin Hunting (Penguin Workshop spring 2020)

When Grandpa Gives You a Toolbox, illustrated by Lorraine Rocha (Sterling spring 2020)

And last, but not least, favorite 80s movie?

Footloose!


Huge thanks to Jamie for stopping by Critter Lit today! We can’t wait to check out all your wonderful books!


Jamie L. B. Deenihan is a teacher and picture book author who lives in Suffield, Connecticut with her husband and two children. Her debut picture book, When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree, illustrated by Lorraine Rocha, is now available for purchase everywhere.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Jamie and her work visit her website or follow her on Twitter @jlbdeenihan or Instagram @jlbdeenihan.

TO ORDER Jamie’s book, ring up your local bookstore or click here.

BOOK GIVEAWAY!

Want a chance to win a copy of WHEN GRANDMA GIVES YOU A LEMON TREE?! Comment on this post or share it on Twitter. One lucky winner will be selected Thursday, March 21st! US addresses only please.

Interview with Debut Author Lindsay Leslie

Authors, Debut Interviews, InterviewsLindsay Ward4 Comments

Happy Thursday Critters! Welcome back! It’s 2019 and I am so excited about all the interviews we have lined up on Critter Lit this year. We are kicking off the year with a debut author whose book, which comes out next month, has the best title of the year…I’m callin’ it! I can’t wait for you all to check out THIS BOOK IS SPINELESS (great title right? Told ya!)

So without further ado…please welcome Lindsay Leslie!

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Where do you live?

I live in the great city of Austin, Texas! Trying to keep it weird over here. (The city’s motto is Keep Austin Weird, in case you all don’t know.)

When did you know you wanted to write picture books?

Not too long ago. I can be a bit slow about understanding what should be my path, and what works for my personality and my talents, but I get there in a very roundabout way. It was toward the end of 2014 when I connected the dots between my ability and love of writing, my love for being creative in some form or fashion, and my adoration of children and how they see the world. The idea smacked me in the face one evening when I was riffing a.k.a. making up a story on the fly to my son. After I said “the end,” I picked up a picture book off his floor and that’s when the smack happened. Helllooooo, Lindsay! You should write for children!!!

Tell us about your road to publication, what did that involve for you?

It involved study of the form and finding out where I needed to be in terms of children’s literature. I started out writing chapter books. I have a series I created based on the stories I made up and told my kids at their nightly bedtime tuck-ins. I have since put those in my electronic drawer to simmer. I moved on to picture books and felt that I connected with the challenge and the focus of creating a story that packs a punch but in very few words. I became obsessed with finding the right words and playing with rhythm and pacing. I also tried out a middle grade novel and became a bit exhausted. It was a lot. I haven’t given up, but for now, it’s in my electronic drawer of goodies.

So, I kept my mind focused on picture books. I wrote and created as much as I could and I learned from those before me. The amount of fantastic knowledge and how it’s given so willingly has always been overwhelming to me. I often think about how I can pay that forward. Anyway, I soaked in all I could and read so many picture books. I also joined supportive children’s literature groups with vaults of knowledge, including SCBWI Austin and 12x12. Also, I found a bunch of wonderful writers who wanted to form a writing group. We lean on each other for everything.

When I was ready to find an agent, I turned to querying traditionally and was a BIG FAN of all the various contests and pitch events on Twitter that seek to connect writers and illustrators with agents and editors. It’s a great way to get immediate feedback on queries and concepts. Back in March 2017, I decided to participate in #pitmad on Twitter, which is a huge pitch event covering all genres--everything and anything. I’ve participated in #pitmad a couple of times, and I’ve always wondered whether picture books get lost in the scrolling madness of YA and adult novels. I’m glad I didn’t give up. I pitched four of my picture book manuscripts, and I only got one “favorite” that day. But, it was the only one I needed. That favorite came from Kristen Nobles, children’s publisher with Page Street Kids. A month and a half later, I received an email from Associate Editor Charlotte Wenger at Page Street requesting an R&R (revise and resubmit). I worked with Charlotte back and forth for the next month and a half to see if I could shape THIS BOOK IS SPINELESS into a picture book Page Street Kids would want to publish. And it worked! I received an offer directly from Page Street.

With an offer in hand, I was referred to Red Fox Literary via a literary connection and connected to Stephanie Fretwell-Hill, who offered representation. 

Can you share a bit about your process?

Oh, it’s a silly process without much science behind it, but it works for me! And, isn’t that what it comes down to? What works for you. So, I wait for my muse. I wait for an idea to pole vault into my noggin’ and if I’m paying attention, I’ll stop in my tracks and have to write down the idea. I’ve got a long running list of those ideas in my phone. Then I pay attention (there’s a lot of that) to the idea that keeps marching in a very belligerent manner through my mind. The idea that just won’t give up. If an idea is doing that, I know I have to explore it on the page. 

Next, I write the horrible first draft, or at least I try to allow myself to do that. Sometimes I can be such an over-editor at the beginning. I let that horrible first draft, or how ever many words I’m able to get down, sit. And, I let it sit for as long as it needs … until it calls me back. Then I go back to it and rewrite or complete the draft. I’d say I do this over and over again until I feel it’s ready for extra eyeballs, and those would be the eyeballs of my trusted critique partners. I make sure to run my work by quite a few people and see what the common pain points are—what’s working, what’s not. I edit and edit and edit, and then I pass it on to my agent. Then I edit and edit and edit. This line of business and creative works takes a lot of patience. By that, I mean patience for yourself.

What do you do to shake the rust off or get new ideas?

I don’t have one prescribed thing I do besides give myself time. I don’t berate myself for not being at the keyboard knocking out new stories all the time or editing, editing, editing every day. I do cheer myself on when I am able to do the work, when I am inspired by an idea, and when I make any forward progress. I acknowledged and keep chugging forward. It takes a lot of listening to yourself and a lot of patience. 

But when I really throw a brain cell at what I’m doing during those idea-creating moments, I can nail down two ways I come up with ideas: creating associations and active sensing.

  1. Creating associations: I let my mind wander and investigate topics I love and that intrigue me. I love asking what-if questions and I make sure I don’t edit my mind and direct its creative investigation. I just keep letting it think and go, even if it goes in a weird direction. And it almost always does. THIS BOOK IS SPINELESS was definitely born from one of those associative moments—an idea that came forward from stepping on my son’s picture book and the ideas that sprang forward from my childhood experiences with anxiety.

  2. Active sensing: I say active sensing, but it’s a living-in-the-moment-and-being-present thing. I actively observe with all of my senses. The two senses I lean on most: listening and looking. Yes, really listen to your kids when they talk about Pokemon, because it may give you an idea that ends up in a book deal (a.k.a. my next picture book NOVA THE STAR EATER). Yes, do some people watching. I get so much quality material watching people go about their daily lives. One of the best places for material, the school cafeteria. Watching how the children interact with each other and hearing some of their conversations. It’s a creative gold mine!

Anything you can’t live without while you write?

Not really, no. OK, I’m kind of lying. I do love to break for a snack or lunch. It’s kind of something I look forward to. I love food. Oh, I do. But while I’m writing? Hmmm...I need my desktop computer or laptop. But I can be anywhere. I don’t have to be at a certain place or have a certain desk or chair. When I’m focused, I’m way focused. Maybe too much. I can have background noise, music, or not. Kids screaming around me or not. I’m very laid back and flexible that way. What I can’t be without is a great idea that takes me to that story in my mind where I can’t be distracted and I want to stay and play.

Any authors and/or illustrators who inspire you?

How long is this blog? I could go for days on this. I’ve been inspired by so many. I’ll stick with the authors who shaped me as a kiddo … Judy Blume, Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary. The trifecta. These authors were my childhood. Hands down. I feel they are a combo of relatable and quirky. That’s where I like to be with my writing. 

Dream project to work on?

Each project I’ve done has been a dream, so don’t wake me up. And, it’s been dreamy to work hand-in-hand with my editor, Charlotte Wenger at Page Street Kids. I trust her feedback implicitly. We seem to really get each other and have a fantastic creative/working relationship. 

Someday, I would like to finish that middle grade novel. That’s my carrot I’m chasing. It’s an odd, quirky thing, and a hard one to write. I was told it would be really difficult to do, but to me that sounds like a challenge, and I love a challenge. One way to get me to accomplish a goal is to tell me I can’t do it. 

Tell us about your debut book.

Oh, THIS BOOK IS SPINELESS …  and wary … and absolutely unadventurous, and is freaking out about what story might be on its pages. The book takes the reader on a journey of its fears, navigating the book’s possible contents together. With each page turn, the book becomes a bit braver. The book is multi-layered and incorporates the five senses, multiple literary genres, and various book parts. Ultimately, the relationship between book and reader brings everything together.

I’m so glad it’s my debut picture book. I’ve battled with anxiety for the majority of my life, so I’m well-versed in what anxiety feels like and how these emotions can get the best of us. This sweet, anxious book mimics what we all feel when anxiety comes rushing in. That heightened state and then the slow realization that we aren’t in immediate danger and we aren’t alone, so the calming begins. 

What’s up next for you?

Lots! THIS BOOK IS SPINELESS hits the shelves on Feb. 19, and I’m looking forward to the book launch at BookPeople in Austin on Feb. 23 (at 2 p.m.!) and celebrating with everyone. On May 21, I will usher in my next book, NOVA THE STAR EATER (Page Street Kids), illustrated by John Taesoo Kim. Then, in summer 2020, WANTED: DUSK RAIDERS (Page Street Kids) will release. In the meantime, I keep creating and having a blast connecting with the wonderful folks of the kidlit world! Also, keep an eye out for the debut picture book authors and author/illustrators of New In Nineteen. There’s so much unbelievable talent in that group. Check out the website at www.newin19.weebly.com

And last, but not least, favorite 80s movie?

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun! 


Thanks so much for stopping by Critter Lit today Lindsay! We can’t wait to see your fantastic books out in the world!


A diary keeper, a journalism major, a public relations executive, a children’s author—Lindsay Leslie has always operated in a world of written words. Her debut picture book, THIS BOOK IS SPINELESS (Page Street Kids/illustrated by Alice Brereton), releases on Feb. 19, 2019. Her blog A Book and a Pie reviews picture books and pairs them with fitting pie recipes. Lindsay lives with her husband, two young boys, and two fur-beasts in Austin.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Lindsay and her work visit her website: lindsayleslie.com or follow her on Twitter @lleslie | Instagram @lindsaylesliewrites

TO ORDER Lindsay’s debut book, ring up your local bookstore, or click here.

BOOK GIVEAWAY!

Want a chance to win a copy of THIS BOOK IS SPINELESS?! Comment on this post or share it on Twitter. One lucky winner will be selected Thursday, January 24th! US addresses only please.

What's up on deck? Tune in next week for an interview with debut author Meera Sriram!